The air up there: Basics of aerial photography (Part two)

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This is part two of a two part series on photographing aerials. You can see part one, from last week, here.

The primary advantage for me is being able to bring a second lens. On my flight in New York City, I took the 24-70mm f/2.8 on one body and the 35mm f/1.4 on the other. Whilst the 35mm falls into the same focal length range as the mid-range zoom, its wider f/1.4 aperture was essential to keep my ISO from going above 6400 after sunset. 

The other major advantage of bringing a second camera is redundancy. These flights are not cheap and unfortunately, there are no do-overs if your camera stops working mid-flight. Having that redundancy means if something goes wrong either before or during the flight, you still have a second camera ready to go. 

Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied
Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied

More isn’t always better

On my first aerial photography flight, I used Sony’s flagship high-resolution camera at the time, the 42.4-megapixel Sony A7R II. Since then, the megapixel race has shown no sign of slowing, with Sony’s latest high-resolution camera the A7R IV, boasting a 61 MP sensor, my camera of choice. High-resolution cameras have several advantages when shooting aerial photography. However, as anyone with experience with high-resolution cameras knows, more isn’t always better.

In addition to producing large, detail-rich prints, these sensors enable you to crop more of the image whilst retaining plenty of resolution. Just like in sports photography, cropping can be used as a tool in post to adjust framing and straighten a crooked horizon. Whilst it’s ideal to get it right in-camera, for those times when you don’t, you’ll be glad you have those additional megapixels to spare. 

Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied
Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied

The downside to high-resolution cameras is they are less forgiving than their lower-resolution counterparts. They require higher-quality lenses and faster shutter speeds to take advantage of the additional megapixels. When shooting in low light conditions, lower resolution cameras may provide better high ISO performance and are therefore worth the trade-off in megapixels.

My suggestion is to stick with high-resolution camera bodies unless you are shooting at dusk or twilight in which case, I would choose a lower resolution body in the 24-30MP range that has good low light performance.

Camera Mode

When it comes to aerial photography, my camera mode of choice is Aperture Priority with Auto ISO Minimum Shutter Speed. In this mode, you set your aperture, minimum shutter speed and the minimum and maximum ISO range. The camera will automatically adjust the ISO to expose for the scene, all whilst maintaining or exceeding the selected minimum shutter speed. If things are still overexposed at ISO 100, the camera will increase the shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure.

This mode aims to keep ISO levels at a minimum, whilst enabling you to shoot with the fastest possible shutter speed. For non-Sony users, the terminology will likely vary, and you may need to search online for an equivalent setting for your camera.

Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied
Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied

Standard Aperture Priority is problematic for aerial photography as it uses shutter speed to expose for the scene, rather than ISO. Without setting a minimum value, you run the risk of shooting with a slow shutter speed and find yourself with a lot of unwanted, blurry images.

The other distinct advantage to using Aperture Priority with Auto ISO Minimum Shutter Speed is that I only need to rotate my exposure compensation dial to increase or decrease the overall exposure. This means I get to spend more of my time focusing on my composition instead of adjusting settings. If your camera doesn’t have this or an equivalent mode available, I’d suggest using Manual Mode with Auto ISO.

Preparation = Success

The key to success in aerial photography is being prepared. Capturing test shots both before and during the flight will help to identify any issues before an opportunity presents itself. Before I board the aircraft, I take this time to ensure that my settings are dialled in, my memory cards are formatted and check that I’m using a fully charged battery.

It’s a lot easier to troubleshoot issues with your camera before you take off, so it’s a good idea to take a couple of test shots to ensure your camera is operating as expected.

Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied
Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied

Once on board, there is generally a bit of downtime between the helipad and your first point of interest. This is the perfect opportunity to test what shutter speed you should be shooting with based on the actual conditions of the flight and make any adjustments to your focus area if the one selected isn’t providing consistent results.

Your first flight on a helicopter, particularly with the doors off can be a nervy experience. Taking test shots early in the flight can also help to settle those nerves and get you comfortable shooting from an unfamiliar position.

Local Insight

One of the best parts of chartering a helicopter is that you get to direct the pilot. The local rules and regulations will restrict where you can go to a degree, but within reason, you get to choose your flight path, orientation, and altitude. Giving you a level of compositional control that is only rivalled by drones.

Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied
Image: Dylan Giannakopoulos/Supplied

My favourite way to scout and plan these flights is with Google Earth. Not only is it free but in most major cities, the maps are in 3D. Even in 2D, they’re a valuable tool to scout and communicate your flight path to your pilot. Another thing I like to do on the day is ask the pilot for their advice.

Most charted flights are flown by pilots who are highly knowledgeable of the area and have flown with plenty of other photographers in the past. As useful as Google Earth is, it pales in comparison to the experience of a seasoned pilot. From suggesting alternative locations to positioning the aircraft in just the right way, their knowledge is invaluable and should be taken onboard. ❂

About the author: Pro photographer and Sony imaging advocate Dylan Giannakopoulos shoots landscapes, wildlife, portraits, street, weddings, and anything else that inspires him. See more at

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